The Panthers have designed an offense your grandpa would be proud of and it's catalyzed a new-look Sam Darnold. During this mini hot streak -- Carolina has won four of six to scratch and claw its way into NFC South contention -- Steve Wilks' team has outgained its opponents 1,017-621 on the ground, and Darnold hasn't thrown more than 25 passes in his four starts dating back to Thanksgiving weekend.
Collectively, Darnold is 54 for 88 (61.4%) for 759 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
While his completion rate is nothing special, Darnold's been efficient accumulating yardage on his drop backs (8.62 yards per attempt) and, vitally, he's taken awesome care of the football. He's legitimately showing growth as a quarterback more than 50 starts into his NFL career. Development this deep into a pro career is rare for any passer.
And this stretch of efficient play from Darnold began with the first play of his starting audition against the stingy Broncos defense in Week 12.
After showing a two-deep safety look prior to the snap, when the ball was in Darnold's hands, Denver creatively rolled into single high and allowed All-Pro Justin Simmons to roam the intermediate level. And he covered this deep over run by D.J. Moore by the book.
Notice how Darnold pulled the pin to throw the ball to Moore across the field, but decided to reload when he saw Simmons sinking to the deep over. A split-second later, when Simmons bit on the underneath route, Darnold went back to Moore, who was now wide open:
That play altogether, particularly the smart decision-making -- was a clear sign of Darnold's maturing as a passer. Remember, turnovers were a huge -- but mostly overlooked -- problem during his time as a prospect and early in his NFL career.
Later in that win over the Broncos, Darnold demonstrated more poise than I've seen from him in a long time before flashing the arm talent he's always possessed.
After executing a play-action fake in the red zone, Darnold snapped his head around and saw a backside defender converging. Younger Darnold would've been a deer in headlights in this scenario, likely making a hurried, off-balance throw to avoid taking a hit that would not have had the requisite accuracy for the pass to be completed. But the opposite occurred:
The Darnold here is unrecognizable. He quickly processed the defender in front of him and calmly set his feet, which allowed him to drop a dime to Moore in the back corner of the end zone. Exquisite quarterbacking.
That's one of the best 5-yard passing touchdowns you'll see all season. I'm serious.
Let's now go to last week's convincing win over the streaking Lions. Darnold had 11 passing first downs in the victory, and from an advanced quarterbacking perspective, none were prettier than this one in the second quarter.
Just before the snap, Darnold identified clear single-high safety alignment from the Lions defense. As he began his drop, his head was positioned down the right hash in the direction of a vertical stem run by tight end Ian Thomas. That second or two froze the safety in the middle of the field. Darnold then quickly moved his attention left to a Terrace Marshall Jr. go route down the left sideline.
Marshall won off the line and Darnold gave the big, physical wideout a chance to make a play on the football. He did with a 36-yard gain. Gorgeous.
Certainly, the Lions defense features one of the more susceptible secondaries in football. But it was a unit that had been playing more effective football of late, having severely frustrated both Trevor Lawrence and the Vikings offense in December.
No, Darnold has not set the NFL on fire during this stint as Carolina's starter. But in a low-volume role he's done his job outstandingly. Since Week 12, Darnold has a big-time throw rate of 6.5%, which is 12th in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks. More importantly than that, Darnold's turnover-worthy play rate is just 0.9% over the last four games.
With D'Onta Foreman challenging his inner 2009 Jonathan Stewart, the defense peaking at the right time -- eighth in EPA per play allowed since Week 12 discounting garbage time -- Darnold has found himself in a game-manager position, and he's comfortably carrying out the duties of that role while demonstrating maturation in the nuances of playing quarterback at a high level.
Ahead of their colossal Week 17 showdown with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, Darnold and the Panthers are trending upward.